Saturday, May 24, 2008

A take on Ernest Adams' "No Twinkie! VIII"

I wanted to comment on the article from Ernest Adams, which got published on Gamasutra last year, titled Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie! VIII.
Usually, I don’t have gripes with his advisory, and I realize that, while reading his older Twinkies articles, my Bioshock: Menus for Soviets was an unfortunate example of the points raised in Twinkie V, but there were a few claims which I didn’t agree with.
Now, Twinkie VIII really is the article I need to talk about.


Mandatory Wildly Atypical Levels

Adams starts by saying that “this [Twinkie Denial Condition] bugs the heck out of me, and I'm apparently not the only one.”
Follows a quotation of Joel Johnson:

I'd like to point out the painfully irritating sections of games where they "change it up." Mini-games are fine by me, but when the game is an FPS except for two levels where you drive a car, race style, that's not a lot of fun. It's just padding that hides the fact that there isn't a lot of content in the main game. Other examples of this include the obligatory "stealth mission" not uncommon in FPSs (if you want to make a stealth game, make a damn stealth game), on-rails shooting-gallery sections of FPSs, the rhythm sections of games like Grand Theft Auto, etc. Optional mini-games are fun, and can be a refreshing change of pace, but optional is the key word here. Levels where a player must complete a game that uses a completely different skill set in order to continue back to a point that uses the original skill set can be irritating as hell.


This criticism of the padding appears to apply beyond the mere question of the atypical level, but also the random inclusion of atypical content, even if it doesn’t represent the whole of a level.

My opinion here is quite simple. The “wildly atypical” levels are not a mistake. If handled properly, they can precisely provide refreshing content which has nothing to do with mediocre padding.
The key words are “handled properly”, but this a tad obvious, because if the whole game is not handled properly, it’s going to be mediocre as well, so there’s not much point discussing this. Most of all, this is certainly a question of being sure that if you want to fiddle with mechanics this way, be sure it’s done well, or just leave it at that and keep it simple.

Now, let’s take an example. While God of War is a formidable series, I’m not convinced that the Simon phases really make the game’s mood and gruesome action any justice.
But they’re so engrained into the franchise, and the franchise gets so many good scores, that in those days of Guitar Hero, it doesn’t seem that problematic, which, in this case, would serve to show how a system is largely evaluated upon the context of a given era and the audience’s tastes of that time. I consider that Resident Evil 4 used these sequences with more parsimony, but both games treated them the same way in the end, as short bursts of unforgiving pikes of increased challenge.

But there’s another simple example which literally shows one of Johnston’s claims being wrong. Call of Duty II had a pure on-rail level where you were kneeling at the back of a truck and shooting at speedy Nazi vehicles trying to skin you.
The FPS, which is largely about aiming and shooting, was reduced to its purest element, and it was an engrossing phase of constant action, a pure moment of glorious shoot’em up.
You can also cite Sin’s intro, where you came by helicopter, and literally rained death upon your enemies with the power of the minigun piece.

I actually applaud designers who manage to use the mechanics of their game and mask them in such a way that you feel, for a given moment, like you’re playing a different genre.
This can be done, for example, by temporarily changing the head up display, and altering a bit the controls by limiting them.
Or using the same controls, but this time, instead of moving a marine around, “strafe” becomes “turn”, and you are driving a vehicle which you need to take from point A to B, while a PNJ does the shooting.

Now, the real problem seems to hinge on the idea that such alternative content is mandatory, which it should not be.
But I couldn’t disagree more with their dismissive overgeneralization these two men are guilty of.
Johnson’s self contradiction is even more annoying, since an on-rail section in a FPS shooter requires the same skill, and frees you from the movement functions (yes, as you can get, I’m not an anti-linear gameplay folk, I believe that limitations can be greatly rewarding in a wide range of cases).


Failure to Provide Clear Short-Term Goals

You won’t find me disagreeing here. Most surprising was how the re-edition of Final Fantasy XIII got spared of a must necessary objective analysis. It’s incredible that the game got so many high scores, while it’s essentially extremely poor in terms of combat functions, poor in its near non existent storytelling, but also displaying a lackluster of keynotes to remind you of your next most urgent goal.

I’ve played my load of Japanese RPGes, some of them great, some of them being pale (Dragon Quest VIII -yes, F you-, Rogue Galaxy), and you can notice the evolution that occurred over the years. FFIII managed to get me stuck at unexpected moments, with no way to know what to do next. Damned shall I be if I ever dared stop playing the game for a week. FFIII and all the cronies sharing the same glaring design fault belong to another prehistoric age of gaming.
It wasn’t a long time ago when you could spot so many games suffering from that same mistake, and this cancer should be treated ASAP.

Note, please, that I’m not saying a bit of mystery doesn’t help, but literally throwing the player in the great unknown, with no possibility to get a clue about what has to be done, and where one should go, is totally absurd. You still need linearity at some point, and one that shouldn’t be too hard to pick up.


Dominant Strategies

The example of Halo is most accurate. Even from the solo, you could easily realize the overwhelming power of the pistol, which quickly had me laughing at the mediocre rifles the UNSC guys were using.
You get this same problem in RTSes. Put simply, AIs are not smart enough these days to defeat you without cheating, provided by stringent advantages implemented by the coders, to compensate for the players’ superior capacity at generating strategies of victory.
That said, those strategies of victory always end, for nearly all RTSes, being the same against the AI.

Things are a bit different in competition involving human players, but rather often, the same strategy wins all games, and it’s largely a question of who supervises more of the map than who comes with the better strategy.

Victory is shaped by the mistakes of players, not their superior strategy. The mistakes concern unit movement, production, placement, building construction: forgetting where your units are, not paying attention to where the enemy comes from, building two foragers instead of three, putting a building to close to the d├ęcor, in the way of your troops, or too far from the enemy base or natural resources, churning out less units than your enemy does so you get swarmed, etc. *yawn*

I’ve never seen anything coming close to the opportunities provided by a Chess game. Generally each camp/civilization/army/else has a major strategy which will assure victory for most games, and the exceptions often come down to one player knowing another, and trying something different because the opponent’s choice suddenly enables an alternative, but this is nothing more than a singular special case situation.

A game which really impressed me was Magic: The Gathering. If you exclude the exceptional super combo decks, both fragile but extremely powerful once the lock would be in place, and the extremely old and limited super cards, all styles and decks have the same percentages of victory, roughly, and it is largely a question of rock paper scissors (my favourite decks either were a pure green mana+beasts, red direct damage with sometimes a few mobs in there, or usually a black deck which ate the opponent’s deck and killed him that way).

Plus the game has the advantage of getting new content periodically, which provides a rich and mind boggling amount of combinations for players to toy with, year after year.
Huh, if only the pecuniary aspect of this game wasn’t that strong... I’d suggest trying the PC version, which was far from containing all decks and all extensions, but had all to enjoy the mechanics of the game, and only them (of course, this is less lucrative for Garfield than selling pieces of cardboard at absurd prices, while the customer doesn’t even know what he’ll get, a problem which was only partially solved with prepared decks).


Incorrect Victory Checks

Following on that great game that Interstate 76 was, one way which would have solved the problem being that the ghostly and invisible check-volume which the player had to pass through to trigger the next phase of the level should have encompassed the whole base you started in, so even if the player got out of said base by using a trick, he or she would had completed step 1.

This does not mean, in any shape or form, that a special cutscene has to be made, even though if you show being able to foresee special resolutions, you might already find those tricks, and want to reward them with proper cutscenes. You can’t plan all the possibilities, otherwise jump tricks in FPS maps wouldn’t exist. They’re part of the fun.

No, the real problem here was that the game was stuck.
So it is better to remain as flexible as possible. The player in question would have had been much less annoyed if the game carried on, even after a rather unorthodox solving.

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